I honestly don’t know why people not required to by their job would watch the State of the Union. That’s true even if you think the president is doing a great job, which is now a great deal less than half the country.
If you have forgotten last year’s SOTU, that was when President Obama hollered at Congress that the children and parents of Sandy Hook Elementary School deserved a vote on gun control. Gun control went nowhere. The State of the Union in no way previewed the parade of horribles that was to plague President Obama in 2013. It was both irrelevant and unmemorable (unless you remembered that it was the SOTU, not some other speech, when he elevated gun control to his highest priority). This is not Obama’s affliction alone, although he has overtaxed us with his media omnipresence and has perfected the annoying habit of declaring as “facts” things that aren’t and are arguably false.
The spectacle of media types pretending the SOTU matters has become a tiresome chore. The insta-polls of the self-selected group of viewers who watched the speech (or said they did) has become an embarrassing and egregious example of mindless journalism. (Hmm, I wonder what most people who sat through 89 minutes of Obama think of Obama.)
The irrelevancy of the SOTU is never more evident than when the president is mistrusted and ineffectual. And Obama is certainly both. The Post-ABC poll finds that “for the first time on the eve of a State of the Union address, more Americans rate his performance negatively than positively, with 50 percent disapproving. His previous low at the start of a new year was 48 percent positive, 48 percent negative in 2012. A year ago, his approval rating was 55 percent.” And it gets worse: “Just 37 percent say they have either a good amount or a great deal of confidence in the president to make the right decisions for the country’s future, while 63 percent say they do not. Those numbers are the mirror image of what they were when he was sworn into office in 2009 and lower than at any other time the question was asked by The Washington Post and ABC News.” You can be really sure, then, that most of what the president says is going nowhere.
Presidents of both parties talk too long, although Democrats (this president, in particular) gives short shrift to foreign policy. Republicans and Democrats in their time on TV alike veer from minutiae to platitudes (“Working together we can solve the . . . blah, blah, blah.”) Too often it becomes a state of the budget speech; it is invariably about the state of the federal government, which Democrats confuse with the “union” or more simply, America. There is never much of a surprise since presidential supporters and aides preview the speech to death, eliminating any trace of suspense.
Perhaps this is why journalists devise drinking games (Take a shot for “inequality“!) and bingo (“Inequality” gives me five across!) to get through it. One reason New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s press conference (which lasted even longer than a Bill Clinton SOTU) was interesting theater was because it wasn’t clear (even to Christie) where this was going, how he’d interact with the media and whether it would “work.” There was emotion, conflict and suspense — none of which is present in modern SOTUs.
And if you want irrelevant, try listening to the other party’s response (or heinously, now multiple responses from Republicans). The star of the moment rarely lasts as a star. In recent years we’ve had Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine — suggesting appearance is either a precursor to doom or to obscurity. There was a little of both last year when Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said something no one recalls and sipped water, which the media pondered for days. He then had the worst year of any Republican other than McDonnell.
Nothing in the Constitution says the speech must be either spoken or be a one-man show. No one (other than the incumbent president and his aides) thinks it needs to be an hour-long. Here, then, are some alternatives:
1. Skip it. Most people do.
2. Limit it to 15 minutes; in other words, give the executive summary. (“The rest can be found online at . . . “)
3. Have the president discuss the SOTU with a leader of the opposing party (no debate moderators, just a conversation).
I don’t see any of those happening, although I’m sorely tempted to vote for the candidate in 2016 who vows never to give one of these. That would show some restraint, humility and understanding of “real” Americans (as opposed to the ones who reply to the insta-polls) — qualities, come to think of it, that have diminished in our leaders as the SOTUs have gotten longer and more tedious. There’s a connection there.